“There was probably no better choreographer in the history of Broadway,” says Mikhail Baryshnikov of his friend Jerome Robbins.
The quick-witted, neurotic Robbins may be most famous for “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” but he was wowing Broadway audiences - and producers - as early as 1944, at age 26, with “On the Town.”
But in 1948, enraptured by the New York City Ballet’s debut performance, Robbins decided he wanted to choreograph for “women on pointe,” explains Baryshnikov.
“I’ll come as anything you want,” Robbins wrote City Ballet director George Balanchine. “I can perform, I can choreograph.”
“Come,” was Balanchine’s response. Robbins spent most of the rest of his life shuttling between Broadway and ballet.
On the 10th anniversary of Robbins’ death, New York City Ballet honors the choreographer with a celebration of some of his best work, presenting 33 ballets on 10 distinct programs through June.
Many of the dances - the social comedies “Fancy Free” and “The Concert,” for example, and the sensual fantasy “Afternoon of a Faun” - are plainly the product of a theatrical mind. For these, the choreographer focused on mood, recalls Damien Woetzel, who Robbins - with his unerring eye for talent - plucked from the City Ballet school in 1984. Woetzel, whose two decades of unforced virtuosity end in a final burst of major Robbins roles this season, recalls learning the role of Riff in “West Side Story Suite.”
Robbins said “I looked a little too ready to fight when the curtain comes up,” says Woetzel. “`You’re confident, so of course you’re ready to fight,’” he says Robbins told him, “`but you’re not already fighting.”“
Even when the ballet had no story and dramatic intent wasn’t an issue, Robbins demanded “the opposite of a jewelry-box dancer,” explains City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan, who says she owes her “bit of authenticity” to the many hours spent in the studio with Robbins early in her career.
In “Brandenberg,” the 1997 Bach epic, “you feel like a kid, scurrying and running and skipping and playing games,” she says. And “Brahms/Handel,” a collaboration with Twyla Tharp, “is a conversation between the two of them - and they really like each other. His lines are very clear, and hers are tweaked and curved. The dance weaves between them.”
But in both ballets - in nearly every Robbins ballet - “it’s about looking at each other, relating to each other, being down-to-earth,” Whelan says.
“Jerry didn’t want it to look like you were out there giving a show,” Woetzel says. “And isn’t that ironic - because he was such a great showman?”
MISHA AND JERRY
Jerome Robbins choreographed “Other Dances” with Mikhail Baryshnikov and fellow Russian emigre Natalia “Natasha” Makarova for a 1976 gala. The Slavic-flavored duet, which soon entered the City Ballet repertory, will be reprised this season. Baryshnikov recently talked about its creation:
“The people whom Jerry admired, he really, truly admired. He adored Natasha Makarova, for example, for the way she moved, the way she moved her arms - he was totally fascinated. At rehearsals, she was very flirty with him and very upfront, and he loved that.”
“I was doubling for him. He was usually trying to do the steps full out. Sometimes I say, `Jerry, stop it. You’ll kill yourself.’
“Jerry would wear a Slavic shirt - you know, without the collar - and that’s where the idea for the costume came ... Jerry always got into the folk element with all his heart.”